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To Disney World – and Beyond!

We’re back from our big vacation for the year! Debbi and I flew to Florida to visit her parents, and then spend several days at Walt Disney World with Debbi’s friend Lisa and her husband Jeff.

We flew out two weeks ago, on Friday November 6, on United Airlines, which is the only airline with direct flights from the Bay Area to Orlando. It’s the first time in quite a few years I’ve flown one of the so-called major carriers (we fly JetBlue to visit our families in Boston, and smaller carriers around the west coast), so I was a bit worried about the experience, but it was actually fine: The flight was only slightly delayed, and the seats were not as cramped as I had feared they might be. Once we landed we rented a car and drove a couple of hours (with a stop for dinner) to Debbi’s parents’ house.

Her parents live in a nice community on the Gulf coast. Once we arrived, we stayed up a bit late that first night since we were still on west coast time (and we didn’t get in until close to 9 pm).

The one downer to the trip was that central Florida was setting temperature records for the first few days we were there; Saturday it got into the 90s and had very high humidity, which made for a pretty nasty day to be outside. Despite this we went out to an art fair and got lunch at a restaurant and did not completely melt. But we were pretty motivated to spend much of the rest of the visit with her parents inside in the air conditioning due to the weather.

Sunday Debbi’s uncle (her father’s brother) and his wife came to visit for a few hours, so I got to see a bit of the family resemblance (and hear a little of the family gossip). Debbi thinks she hasn’t seen her uncle since her sister got married almost 20 years ago, and everyone had a good time.

We got up a couple of mornings to go running (me) and walking (Deb), which was about as rough as you’d expect since it was mid-70s and muggy even at 8 am. But the humidity did start to go down so the second day was a bit more pleasant than the first, even if it was still hot.

Monday we went down late in the day to the Venice chalk festival, but we got there just as the one rain shower of the week kicked in, so we went back again on Tuesday. It was pretty neat, even though we were there for the early stages of the drawing! A big 3D painting from the previous year was done in latex paint and was still there, and the same crew were working on a larger painting to set a world record. And there were several smaller pieces in progress. I observed that the references the artists were working from were stretched onto a perspective grid so they would have a 3D look when placed on the ground – a technique I remember my dad showing me when I was a kid.

Otherwise we had a pretty relaxed time visiting her parents. I spent a bunch of time playing The Room Three on my iPad (which is great – each installment has been better than the last), and I read one book and part of another. I believe Debbi got through a few more books, too. So, it was a good visit.

Oh, one wrench in the trip was that our cat sitter e-mailed us that on Monday the dish washer had somehow gotten filled with water and leaked onto the kitchen floor. It didn’t seem to have gotten too bad, but it happened the day of a big rain storm, which made us worry that something was backing up from the outside or that something else had happened. The sitter shut off the water to the washer just in case and said she’d keep an eye on it for us.

Wednesday we drove back to Orlando and dropped off the rental car. Lisa picked us up and we spent the evening at her house before heading to Disney World on Thursday. We stayed in a suite at the Saratoga Springs resort and took the bus to and from the theme parks. This was a bit annoying as they don’t run enough buses (in my opinion), and sometimes they get bogged down in traffic. But, so it goes. The suite itself was nice, though.

We last visited Disney World in 2007 with Debbi’s family, so we did things a little differently this time: We didn’t go to Animal Kingdom, and we spent more time in Epcot. Thursday we first went into the Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot Thursday night and Friday, Hollywood Studios on Saturday, and back to the Magic Kingdom on Sunday. We used the FastPass+ system to plan out rides for the various days, and used Magic Bands for admission. These are new systems since we last visited, and which are not yet available at Disneyland, but they’re pretty convenient.

A big difference between Disneyland and Disney World is that the parks at Disney World are much larger. This has the advantage that you do not feel as packed in with the other people as at Disneyland, but it also means you have to walk farther to get between places, and that though it might not feel as crowded, it might actually be more crowded, and thus the lines for attractions might actually be longer.

Among the most fun things on this visit was Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Epcot features exhibits from many countries around the world, and the festival set up booths where food and drink associated with each nation was available. And lots of it was really good! I especially remember some crispy pork belly, and an especially good glass of sangria. Of course, being Disney, I wondered how authentic the food selections were, and scratched my head at Argentina being referred to as Patagonia, and the lack of diversity of African stations (one was just called “Africa”!). But I didn’t worry about it that much.

The FastPass+ selections were handy for getting to some of the most popular rides, although it was strange not being able to just walk on to some of them if the lines were short as at Disneyland – because the lines were rarely short. It was also weird not knowing where many things were, or things being just a little different at the Magic Kingdom than at Disneyland (no New Orleans Square, no Indiana Jones). Some of the rides are slightly different too, such as some of the details being moved around on Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion.

Though we spent most of our time at the parks, we did come back on Friday to relax in the room for a bit, and came back early on Saturday and went down to the pool. Had we had more free time I might have gone running, since their running path was about the right length for the distance I’m currently running.

Anyway, we all had a good time. Debbi has been wanting to do this trip for several years, and we’d postponed it either due to my Mom’s health, or because I wanted to go to Cape Cod last year. I think she wishes we’d spent a couple more days at Disney World so we weren’t running around quite so much. Maybe next time!

On our flight home we bought first class seats, because for some reason they were a lot cheaper for this leg than for the flight out. And factoring in baggage fees and extra leg room seats – both included in first class – it was not a lot more than we would have been spending anyway. And it was pretty nice! Only two people per row per side, with a two-course meal for dinner (and better food than I’d expected), with wine and warm cookies added in. To top it off our luggage came out first on the other end. The only wrinkle was that we hit some nasty turbulence which caused Debbi’s wine glass to take a dive off her tray table and break, but at least it didn’t hurt anyone (plus it was empty).

We took today off from work to catch up on sleep and get some things done. And a good thing, too, since we both came down with colds, probably from the flight. Nothing too horrible, but definitely feeling under the weather.

Fortunately, no further incidents with the dish washer, even though there was another rain storm last weekend. Strange.

So that was our big fall trip! And now back to reality, and to brace ourselves for the holiday season.

Monterey Bay-cation

It’s been a busy year, as my few (dare I say rarified?) readers know, and ultimately Debbi and I decided to take a low-key vacation this month to unwind a bit. We decided to go to Monterey for a couple of days at the end of last week, and then take a couple more days off this week to relax and catch up on things.

Thursday morning we loaded into Debbi’s car Flo, and headed out. We had breakfast at Southern Kitchen in Los Gatos, which was very tasty, although the portions were about twice as big as we expected. Then we drove down Highway 1 to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a seaside town about half an hour south of Monterey which we’d never been to. Its downtown is cute, although mostly split between upscale boutiques and touristy souvenir shops. Carmel Beach City Park is quite nice, though (albeit extremely windy during the time we were there).

We drove up to Monterey along the 17-Mile Drive and through Pacific Grove. The former costs $10 admission, but I much prefer driving along the latter’s coastline, a rocky shore whose character and ocean waves for my money easily surpasses the views on the ritzy private drive.

In Monterey we stayed at the Spindrift Inn, which is right on Cannery Row. We looked at several hotels along the street and decided on this one in large part because we were able to get an ocean view room for not much more than we could get a street-side room in other hotels. Plus they had free wi-fi, continental breakfast delivered to the room in the morning, and a wine and cheese social in the late afternoon.

So we walked in and found that the view from our window looked like this:

View from the hotel room

Yes, we spent plenty of time over the next two days sitting in that windowseat. And the rest of the room was pretty nice, too! We definitely recommend the inn to anyone looking to spend a few days on Cannery Row.

Of course we spent the next morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is the signature sight in Monterey. We saw an otter feeding, their current exhibit on cephalopods (I loved cephalopods when I was about 10 years old, and I still think they’re pretty cool), and lots of jellyfish (which Debbi loves). Even a staff member who was carrying a tube with a bunch of small jellies:

Handheld Jellyfish

Plenty of good food during the weekend, too: Hula’s Island Grill, the Whaling Station steak house, and on the drive home Aptos St. BBQ. And a visit to the Monterey branch of Bookbuyers. Alas, despite Cannery Row having a zillion candy stores, none of them carried chocolate cordials, thus saving me from myself. Well, almost, since we did make a couple of trips to Ghirardelli for ice cream sundaes.

Saturday we drove home and stopped off in Santa Cruz to do some shopping, and we made it home to have a relaxing evening with Chinese take-out for dinner. And appreciated having air conditioning at home, since while it was nice and temperate in Monterey, we were having a high-80s heat wave at home, which has persisted the rest of our vacation.

While there’s not a tremendous amount to do on Cannery Row, and we didn’t want to drive around any more than we did, we definitely had a very relaxing and fun couple of days down there, and might do it again someday!

Since then we’ve spent a couple of days puttering around the house – paying bills, having dinner with friends, etc. – before heading up this morning for a trip to California Academy of Sciences (yes, we’re still members!), with the usual follow-up trip to Borderlands Books. And here’s my obligatory panoramic photo from the roof of the Academy:

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

They had a couple of new exhibits at the Academy, too: One on the use of color in nature, and one on whales. Honestly I enjoy their rotating artifact exhibits such as the whale one more than the long-term, permanent installations. Variety and rotation is what makes it worth going back multiple times per year (and, in turn, having a membership).

I don’t think we’ve taken a vacation to just have time off for ourselves since Disneyland in February, so this was long overdue. We’re both in a bit of denial about going back to work tomorrow, but life marches on – with or without us.

Summer at Disneyland in February

We’re back from a long weekend at Disneyland! This was a slightly different trip for us, as we’ve never gone in February before, and we also flew down rather than drove. When you factor in getting to the airport early, flying is not a huge amount faster than driving (though if they close the Grapevine into L.A. as they did last time we went then it is quite a bit faster to fly), but it is nice to not have to do the driving ourselves, and it really does shave at least an hour or two off of the travel time. We also had a hilarious driver of our SuperShuttle from the Orange County airport.

We stayed at the Carousel Inn, which we were less impressed with. Aside from the extremely small bathroom and the tub drain getting clogged, it has a weird mix of old/new technology: Ancient lights with push buttons which are nonetheless wired to modern wall switches, and an old air conditioner with a modern thermostat control. It was like the ultimate half-assed remodel. At least the beds were comfortable and things basically worked, but it’s not a place we’ll be in a hurry to return to. Of course it’s also very close to the main entrance to the park, which is why we chose it (well, that and several other hotels were full by the time we booked).

Anyway, we bought 3-day passes for the parks since we got there early enough on Saturday to enjoy a half-day. Quite a few attractions were closed as they’re refurbishing many of them in preparation for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary which starts later this year. The two I missed the most were Soarin’ Over California and the Disneyland Railroad. Well okay, I also missed Muppet*Vision 3D, which is temporarily displaced by a Frozen musical theater.

Disneyland Main Entrance

Since we usually go to Disneyland during the holidays, this was a – for us – rare opportunity to see the Haunted Mansion in its standard, non-holiday configuration, which I appreciate more than the holiday version. I’m not a big fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas (I prefer The Corpse Bride), and the bright colors and less-detailed figures of the holiday set-up I find less appealing overall. I particularly enjoyed seeing the “bride’s attic”, which lead me to learn that Wikipedia has an enormous entry on characters in the Haunted Mansion. You’re welcome.

Though we were getting a series of rain storms at home when we left, it was bright, sunny and warm in Anaheim while we were there, and I wore shorts on Sunday and Monday, and was glad I’d brought them. Honestly I almost wish it had been a bit overcast like it was on Saturday, since it was maybe too warm for a few hours at midday otherwise. (I’m sure all our friends who are snowed in in the northeast are really sad to hear that.)

We spent a chunk of time in Downtown Disney, which now features what may be the largest Starbucks I’ve ever seen:

Ginormous Starbucks in Downtown Disney

(click for larger image)

And we spent chunks of two evenings in the Hearthstone Lounge for cocktails, and one night for dinner since we were not very hungry (having chowed down on fried chicken for lunch) and just had some of their bar snacks for dinner. This lounge is becoming my favorite place to end a day once the parks are winding down.

We rode a bunch of rides multiple times, including the recently-refurbished Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. And while the Radiator Springs Racers is a fun ride, we only rode it once because of its long lines. And honestly, as I remarked at one point, the best thing about the Racers is that it sucks crowds away from California Screamin’, which to my mind is the superior ride.

Debbi also bought some Disney pins. I don’t think she’s going to go full-on into pin trading, but she did have this experience: We were in a store on Main Street and she saw a Tigger pin (Tigger is her favorite character) available for trade. The cast member (employee) working the counter said she could buy a pin off the wall to trade for it, so she told me to pick a pin for her. I picked a Stitch pin, and she made some comment about not liking that pin. (I thought it was fine, actually, but not one I wanted to own myself.) The cast member said, “You know whatever pin you picked would have been the wrong one.” Yeah, I did. So, Debbi traded for the Tigger pin, and the cast member took the Stitch pin to put on the board to trade. And just after he did, a maybe eight-year-old girl came up and said that she’d been looking to trade for that Stitch pin all day! So I guess I did choose the right pin!

Oh, and along the way I also took this picture of Debbi:

Debbificent

Hee-hee!

We and our tired feet flew back on Tuesday, and got home early enough to run some errands and settle in.

Debbi was intent on not running us ragged on this trip, and I think we had a good mix of doing stuff, standing in lines, and just hanging around. I think the only things we really missed were seeing fireworks, and riding Star Tours (we opted to ride Space Mountain a second time instead).

And I’m sure we’ll go back sometime during the upcoming 60th anniversary, too.

Vacation Part 2: Cape Cod

The main plan for this vacation was to spend a week on Cape Cod. My parents have been vacationing there every year (well, as far as I know they haven’t missed a year) since I was a kid. Even after they divorced they continued to go, each one going down to the cottage on consecutive weeks, with my sister Katy and me going down for two weeks. We moved among different cottages in Orleans over the years before eventually settling on a duplex near Skaket Beach.

Katy suggested last year that we all go down with my Dad this year, so we were able to rent both sides of the duplex. Dad and I drove down last Saturday, and Katy joined us, with her boyfriend Andrew, and her son I and his daughter A. I haven’t done more than a day trip down to the Cape in over 20 years, so I was looking forward to this.

Cottage Sign

We had gorgeous weather for most of the week – a little humid at the start, and a little cloudy at the end, but considering it could easily have been drivingly hot and humid all week, or raining, I’m not complaining!

We settled into a pattern of Dad going to get us pastries for breakfast in the morning, and we’d each brew coffee on our sides of the cottage. It was relaxing. Katy and Andrew went out for runs or walks in the morning, and sometimes I’d amble down to the beach to look around. We spent some time down on the beach during the week, but we also spent a lot of time going out and doing stuff.

We took a trip down to Chatham, where we stayed for a few years when I was quite young. It’s got a cute downtown with a nifty candy shop, among other stores. On the way back we swung by the beach, which has changed a lot over the last few decades, as storms have washed away the natural breakwater and radically changed the shape of the sands. Once upon a time you could walk in the shallows and pick up starfish, but I don’t think they come in that far anymore. I bet that over the next few decades that erosion will even threaten Chatham Light which stands a few dozen yards from the bluffs over the beach. We’ll see.

Chatham Beach

None of us were terribly familiar with restaurants to go to on the Cape, so by Wednesday we were turning to Yelp to find some places to eat. We found several good ones, such as the Orleans Public House (which we went to three times), and the Rock Harbor Grill.

On Tuesday, everyone else went off on a horseback ride, so Dad and I drove down to Woods Hole to see the Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, pronounced “hooey”). Unfortunately, it took longer to get there than I’d expected, and it turns out the WHOI buildings close down at 4, so we didn’t get to see a lot. But it’s pretty down there. We’ll have to go back earlier in the day someday.

On Wednesday we went to the Edward Gorey House, where we tried another new restaurant, the Optimist Cafe, which was maybe the most popular among us. The Gorey House was quite cool, with lots of samples of his cartoons and original works. The house is the house he lived in, which is also pretty neat. And there’s a scavenger hunt based on the Gashleycrumb Tinies. Well worth the visit. I wish I’d bought one of their tote bags.

Edward Gorey House front door

On Thursday, Debbi came down with her sister Dianne and two of her kids, R and J. The girls, R and A, are about the same age, and the boys, J and I, are also about the same age. After a bit of ice-breaking, they all got along great. We got pizza for lunch, and then went down to the beach for a couple of hours. It was nearly low tide, so the boys dug in the sand for a while, and the girls pulled the floats out to the water and paddled around until it was time to go. Everyone seemed to have a great time!

Andrew and A left Friday morning, and the rest of us made a trip to shop in Wellfleet. We had lunch at the simply-named Bookstore & Restaurant; I’d been going to the bookstore for decades, and always assumed the restaurant was just a basic diner, but it’s actually a quite good restaurant. The bookstore, sadly, is a shadow of its former self; I found a number of neat things there in the past (they once had a fine set of silver age comics, for example), but now it seems to be a barely-organized collection of random stuff. Too bad. Anyway, we also walked over Uncle Tim’s Bridge, which is quite scenic. Well, on the way back I and I (heh) ran down the hill and across the bridge as fast as we could go. I can outrun him, but he’s not far from being able to outrun me. Then we waited for Dad and Katy to catch up.

Saturday it was time to head out, so we packed up and cleaned the cottages and drove home. Dad and I stopped at the Optimist Cafe for brunch, and bludgeoned out way across the Cape through nasty traffic. I visited Mom for the afternoon and then went back to have dinner with Dad and do laundry. Tomorrow Debbi and I fly home.

It was a nice, relaxing trip. Kind of nice to be off the Internet for a week except for my iPhone. I don’t know when I’ll make it down there again, but hopefully before another 20 years go by.

Sitting on Skaket Beach

Vacation Part 1: Errands with Mom

We headed off for our latest vacation last Tuesday night. Yes, another red-eye flight to Boston to visit our families. Which also means it was another vacation apart for us, since I go to visit my family and Debbi goes to visit hers.

The payoff for the vacation for me comes tomorrow – more on that in part 2! But this week was about doing stuff with Mom.

One thing I miss about visiting is that I no longer spend long, lazy days hanging out with Mom at her house. Since she no longer drives, I spend a chunk of my visits taking her to places she wants to go, and since I’m managing her finances I often have things I need to do with her. It can be stressful at times, and it’s definitely less relaxing than before she moved.

It was raining when we landed early Wednesday, and it kept up when Debbi and her sister dropped me off at my Dad’s house. He and I went to breakfast and then I took a nap. After lunch I drove out to get Mom.

On the way I drove past my elementary school, which is being demolished to be replaced which a modern building. It’s about 90 years old and felt out of date even when I attended, so while it’s sad to see it go, it’s also time. Then I drove past my Mom’s house, which we sold last year, and found that it had been demolished. Which is what we expected when we sold it, since like the school it was old and not really able to be modernized. I was less shocked by it than I’d expected. But it does close the book on part of my childhood.

I met Mom and told her about the school and the house. And then we headed off to run some errands. First she had some watches she needed fixed, and I had researched some jewelers we could go to. One of them was supposedly just a few blocks from her place, but it no longer existed. So instead we drove to a very nice little place the next city over, and they were able to get all of her watches’ batteries replaced the same day. Then we swung by the bank to deal with an issue with her bank account, which was pretty straightforward.

We went to dinner at Tartufo, a quite good Italian place I hadn’t been to before. Definitely worth a return trip someday. The only downside had nothing to do with the restaurant – the rain had gone away for several hours, but returned during dinner, and I’d left the umbrellas in the car, so we got drenched on the way back.

Thursday morning I got up really early to pick up Mom and her cat Maggie to take Maggie to the vet. Maggie is a middle-aged cat who needed her teeth cleaned, so we dropped her off shortly before 8 am. We met the vet and he said they’d cleaned her teeth before, which was a relief to me since it meant she’d gone through anesthesia before and would probably be fine.

The other big task for the day was to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to get her a new state ID. One thing I’ve been very grateful for is that Mom has not wanted to resume driving, and though I asked her repeatedly if she was okay with surrendering her driver’s license, she stuck to her willingness to do so. So that meant all we had to do was wait for 90 minutes for our turn to submit the forms. Fortunately the lady who helped us was extremely helpful and after the wait it all went very smoothly.

We had lunch and then picked up Maggie, whose cleaning had the best-case outcome, with no teeth pulled. We brought her home, the vet having warned us that she might be lethargic and have a suppressed appetite for a day or so. She promptly ate half a can of food which alleviated that worry. Since we’d driven all over creation, we instead went out to get coffee and do some walking, and ended the day having dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

I breathed a sigh of relief at having done all the tasks I needed to do for the week, so Friday Mom and I did some shopping that she wanted to do, and had a nice lunch along the way. We also swung by my elementary school to get a closer look, and ran into my sixth grade teacher who has been taking pictures every day during the demolition. I haven’t seen him in several years, and it was good to chat with him again.

In the evening I headed back to have dinner with Dad and do my laundry.

And tomorrow Dad and I are heading to Cape Cod for a week with my sister and her clan!

Family Visit

Well I didn’t mean to disappear from here for the month – and I’d been doing so well at writing regularly in February and March, too. Oh well!

But my excuse is that last week my sister Katy and her clan visited. Katy visited once before back in 2008, as part of a trip for a conference out here, but this was a planned vacation. When I say “her clan”, I mean her boyfriend Andrew, her son I, and his daughter A. They flew in Sunday night, getting in around 10 pm – which was 1 am in their east coast time zone. I was surprised the kids were not totally asleep! We’d spent time on-and-off during the month getting ready for their visit, making sure we had sheets and blankets, and buying an air mattress for our study so we could use all of our bedrooms for them. We had everything set when they arrived, so we gave them a short tour of the house and let them crash.

We planned a pretty quiet first day: We had brunch at Hobees, then went to the Apple campus because I is a huge Apple fan and wanted to see the mothership. Then we met Debbi in downtown Mountain View to show them our stomping grounds.

We spent two days in San Francisco: Tuesday we went to California Academy of Sciences and Ghirardelli Square, and then Thursday we hit the Golden Gate Bridge, rode the cable cars (who surely have the most primitive web site of any major attraction in the nation), and went to Pier 39.

Andrew used to live in the area in the late 80s and he wanted to go down to Santa Cruz to see his old stomping grounds, which we did on Wednesday. I guess Pacific Ave is quite different now since they rebuilt much of it after Loma Prieta. We also went to the Beach Boardwalk and walked out the municipal wharf. We had gorgeous weather for this trip, and finished with a drive up the coast, turning in at Half Moon Bay.

Friday was not so nice, as we went back to Half Moon Bay and it was cloudy and chilly on the coast. That didn’t stop us from going to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Then we went along Skyline Drive and took in some of the scenic views, as well as a walk at Russian Ridge.

This was not as packed a visit as I’ve had with some other folks, as we spent the mornings hanging around the house, and the late afternoons and early evenings in the back yard, where I, A and a mixture of adults kicked around a soccer ball and played with out bocce ball set. We did have the usual food-fest, eating quite a bit of Mexican and hitting some other favorite restaurants too.

It only took three-and-a-half decades for Katy and me to develop an adult relationship – we did not get along as kids, and didn’t interact a lot in our twenties. I guess the bright side of us dealing with our mother moving into assisted living and selling her house has been developing that relationship. I’d gotten to know Andrew during our trips to do all that, as he helped out with a bunch of stuff and was extremely helpful with the manual labor, and he’s a friendly, funny guy. The kids are great, too, and both had fun. I was a little worried that they’d be a bit bored by the visit since we don’t have a lot of experience entertaining kids of their ages at our home – most of our friends’ kids are much younger – but I was worried about nothing, I guess. We barely even turned on the television, except to watch some sports!

They all headed out Saturday morning to go home, which went smoothly too. Now we’ll have to go out to visit them sometime!

The Clan

Frogs & Flowers

Debbi and I took Tuesday off for a fun day in San Francisco. We spent the morning at California Academy of Sciences, where we renewed our memberships for the year. Sadly, their planetarium was closed for the day, and it’s one of the highlights of a visit there. But we had a good time otherwise. It was really quiet there, relatively speaking; I guess the end of February is not the busy season for SF museums! One nice benefit of this was we got some lengthy quality time with the penguins, who were happily swimming in their pond, and one of whom followed me back and forth through the window.

I took another panorama from the rooftop:

View from the Cal Academy rooftop

Debbi took a bunch of pictures and posted a few to Facebook having made collages out of them with Pic Stitch. I liked this one with the many small frogs we saw in the tropical rainforest:

Frogs

After five trips in the last year, I think the Academy needs to refresh some of their exhibits. The earthquake exhibit feels very stale at this point, and they haven’t had a good exhibit on the second floor in a while – they really need something like their Extreme Mammals exhibit from a few years ago.

Afterward we went to the Conservatory of Flowers, which I always think is one of the best-kept secrets in Golden Gate Park. We were pleased to see they had their butterfly exhibit in their rotating exhibit room, but I always enjoy seeing all their rooms. I got a panorama of the room with the large pond:

Conservatory of Flowers pond room

And Debbi made a collage of some pictures from our visit:

Flowers

Finally we went to Ghirardelli Square for sundaes, and then drove home.

We had a quiet rest of the day, but sadly we were both strangely wiped out by it all; Debbi took a nap in the afternoon, and I developed a headache later in the evening (though not the debilitating kind I occasionally get), so we went to bed early. A disappointing end to an otherwise fun day.

On the bright side, we’ve gotten some rain since then, which the state badly needs and which I always enjoy. And more coming in the next few days!

Vegas Long Weekend

Last weekend we went to Las Vegas for the first time in several years. (For those following along at home, due to the frail condition of our two cats Newton and Blackjack, we didn’t go away on vacation for several years. Both of them have since passed away, so we’ve been travelling again.)

Something about this trip didn’t feel quite right to me from the time we booked it. This isn’t foreshadowing, nothing bad happened on the trip; it just felt slightly off, like I couldn’t quite figure out why we were going. Vegas can be a bit of an odd trip for us, trying to figure out what we want to spend time doing, especially since we’ve seen most of the spectacle before several times. But walking around aimlessly is tiring and kind of pointless.

What we did do was book tickets to go see Cirque du Soleil’s “O”, which we saw the first time we went to Vegas about ten years ago. (We had wanted to see their new show, Zarkana, but it was dark during January.) We flew in Saturday afternoon and went to the show in the evening. It’s quite a spectacle, of course; it seemed like they’d changed it up a bit (in particular the closing piece was different from what I remembered).

We stayed at the MGM Grand, where we’ve stayed several times before. We liked them partly because they had a branch of Fat Tuesday in them, but also because they had a killer poker room, a large room with a variety of games. Sadly, their great room is no more, the space largely unused, and the remaining poker tables shoved into an alcove to one side of the casino. And they only seem to have 1/2 no-limit games anymore. Disappointing. Also, the room where they used to bring in lions from a nearby preserve has been remodeled into a night club. And it turns out that Fat Tuesday now has something like eight locations on the strip, so we could find daiquiris all kinds of places.

Anyway, I went to the site All Vegas Poker to check out rooms, and it seems that the collapse of on-line poker has hit poker rooms on the strip hard, with many of the downsizing or closing.

I struggle to have the courage to play no-limit poker; all my poker playing friends seem to play no-limit when they come to Vegas, and that’s what we play in our nickel-dime home games, at which I hold my own (and our home games are tough). But I feel more comfortable playing limit when I play for real money, so we went to the Flamingo, which still has a 2/4 game and I’ve enjoyed playing at before. It was a good choice: We visited several other poker rooms over the weekend and they were pretty consistently quiet, while the Flamingo’s room was active during the day and busy at night. I talked to several people I played with during the trip and they said the Flamingo was one of the better rooms on the strip for finding a game at all hours.

While I play poker Debbi usually goes to play a mix of pai-gow poker and video poker. I often feel guilty for separating from her for hours at a time to play poker, but she seems okay with it. This trip I tried to embrace her giving me the time to sit at the table for a lengthy session.

Well, the first couple of days it didn’t work out so well. Sunday in particular I spent the afternoon being dreadfully card-dead. Honestly the best I can say from the session was that I didn’t lose much more than I was going to lose, and I actually made some pretty good folds when I did have good (but losing) hands. Monday afternoon was more of the same, except I had the sense to order some coffee with Bailey’s to warm things up (or “add some variance to my game” as I joked).

Coffee and Chips

Monday night my luck finally changed and I was able to recoup most of my losses from the rest of the trip, winning some big hands and losing a few through bad luck. Overall I was pretty happy with how I played, which I guess means I need to figure out what the next step is to become a better player.

Monday night we also went to our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse (Bally’s – another casino which has shoved its poker room into a corner of the casino). I was pleased to see they haven’t changed much – if anything they’ve improved a bit with the addition of a mixed drink menu (their Old Fashioned was well worth the price). Afterwards we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower replica at Paris, which was a bit over-priced but fun anyway. I got a couple of good pictures of the strip from up there, too:

Strip facing south
Strip facing north

We had a quiet morning Tuesday before flying out. It was, overall, a fun trip, but it felt slightly dreamlike at times. I’m not sure if I wasn’t quite mentally into it, or if the place has changed just enough in five years that I was thrown off. I do want to go back, though, and perhaps we’ll figure things out ahead of time a little better, now that we’re familiar with what’s changed.

Three Days at Disneyland

Last weekend we drove down to Disneyland and spent three days there. Other than our trip to Disney World in 2007, I think this is the longest we’ve spent at a Disney park. But, we haven’t been in several years (thanks to our vacation moratorium due to Newton and Blackjack’s conditions), and Debbi was missing it, so we added the extra day.

Unfortunately, on Saturday when we drove down, snow closed both the Grapevine into Los Angeles and its main alternate route. After lunch at Harris Ranch, we learned of the closure in time to reroute from I-5 through the central valley to Hwy 101 on the coast, but it added 2 or 3 hours to our trip. We had 6:30 reservations for dinner and were worried we wouldn’t make it, but we got to our hotel around 5:40 and made it to dinner in time – where we met Mark and Yvette, whom we hadn’t seen in a while. They introduced us to the bar & lounge at the Grand Californian hotel, which has some killer drinks and some good appetizers.

Disneyland Main Gate

A few rides were closed at the parks while we were there, but the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster was the only one we really missed. Otherwise we rode all of our favorite rides on Sunday, and went around the park in the railway train. In the evening we had reservations for dinner to get the preferred seating for the World of Color show, which was nice since it was getting pretty cold and a sit-down dinner was a good way to get out of the chill. (The restaurant also had the same drinks as at the bar Saturday night.)

Paradise Pier

One of the bummers at the park is that Starbucks is apparently taking over coffee services there. I don’t loathe Starbucks, but I do find them to be below-average coffee (especially drip coffee). They’ve replaced the old coffee ship on Main Street, which was wonderful, not just because you could get a free refill, but because the drip coffee was genuinely tasty. I realize that Disneyland’s relentless commercialism is just a part of the park, but this is definitely a big step backwards.

Monday was inexplicably cold and windy, which was awkward since this was the day we decided to try the Radiator Springs Racers, which is the hot new ride at California Adventure. We got a Fastpass for it and then stood in line for 90 minutes for an extra ride. And holy cow the main feed to the ride is the coldest spot in the park, and the staff don’t even have heaters to keep them warm! But we got to ride it twice. It’s a good ride, but not perhaps worth waiting that long for a go.

Radiator Springs

In the evening we had reservations at the Blue Bayou restaurant, and despite somehow having been forgotten about for a while after checking in, we ended up with a water-side table. The food was good as always. Just as we were finishing up and looking at the dessert menu, the manager of our section told us the fire alarm was going off and everyone had to evacuate. She told us since we were done we could just leave and not come back to pay. Strange! But surely a much smaller hassle than for people who were halfway through their dinner (especially since it was c-o-l-d outside).

Tuesday we had a “magic morning”, getting into Disneyland an hour before regular opening, so we went to ride several of the classic Fantasyland rides (which don’t have Fastpasses and are often jammed with long lines during regular hours). This was the warmest day of our trip, and of course we had brought warmer clothes on this day – oh well!

We rode Pirates of the Caribbean in the afternoon, and as our boat came up out of the underground ride we noticed that there was no line and the front doors had closed. Sure enough, the fire alarm had gone off as it had during dinner the night before – but we made it through the ride anyway! That building was having a rough weekend. As did the Indiana Jones ride, which was closed for most of Monday and Tuesday, so we only got to ride it once.

Somewhere along the way we went into Innoventions in Tomorrowland which I’d understood had been overhauled from the rather dated “future of the past” look from when we went 10 years ago. If anything, it’s actually worse than before. While there are a few vaguely interesting exhibits, some of it is a shambles: There’s currently an exhibit for Thor: The Dark World which we waited in for 20 minutes without much idea of what it was or how often it ran; eventually we gave up. (As best I could tell it was some sort of film presentation.) And the first floor is a sort of “house of the future”, but with an outside ring which is basically completely empty – it felt like we were trespassing backstage. Very bizarre. And the house exhibit itself was no nicer than the house we actually have! Innoventions has to be the place in Disneyland with the least imagination. Bizarre – and entirely skippable.

On the other hand, Star Tours, which I was also underwhelmed by when I rode it a decade ago, has been significantly refurbished and is a lot more fun. We only rode it once on this trip, but I’d certainly go again.

While we in the parks there I took some pictures and texted them to my nephew, which my sister had suggested I do after I sent her a picture on our first night. She says he enjoyed getting them; I haven’t seen him in a number of years, so I’m glad he did!

Haunted Mansion Holiday

After the fireworks show on Tuesday evening we did a couple more rides and then called it an early evening. Wednesday we drove back home, and fortunately hit no snags other than a couple of slowdowns on the LA freeways (and, honestly, “a couple of slowdowns” on the LA freeways is about the best you can hope for). Our kitties were happy to see us and very snuggly, and we were glad to collapse into our own bed.

Alas, Tuesday afternoon I started coming down with a cold, and driving home didn’t help it any, so today I stayed home sick. Still, a fun trip all-in-all.

At Long Last, a Vacation

It’s been a long time since Debbi and I went away on a vacation. Due to Blackjack and Newton’s conditions, we were reluctant to go away and leave them to a pet sitter for any length of time. (And, coincidentally, both of them passed away at times when we had been considering going away, so I guess that was a good call.) After Newton’s passing, we made plans to visit our families this month, and that’s what we did.

We took the JetBlue red-eye to Boston two weeks ago, arriving bleary-eyed as usual. We went down to visit Debbi’s family for part of the day, and then they drove me up to my Dad’s house. It was dreadfully hot the first day and a half, but then cooled off to just about perfect weather (with a couple of rainy days).

This is the first time I’ve actually spent vacation time with my parents since my Mom moved in to assisted living. It was very nice to not be working during the trip, since it got pretty exhausting to have to get up every morning and head over to take care of Mom’s affairs, or get her house ready for sale. Plus it got to be depressing to spend the waning hours of the day in the increasingly-empty house. Now that the house has sold, that’s no longer a concern.

Spending most of my time hanging around my Mom’s house and occasionally having dinner with Dad (or someone else) has now been changed to mostly hanging around my Dad’s house, but driving out to visit Mom every other day. I had sort of thought that we would spend afternoons sitting either in her apartment or on the complex’s back deck by the river reading (i.e., much like what we did at her house, but in a different place). Instead we mostly drove out for lunch, ran errands, did shopping, and did a few chores around her apartment. I didn’t mind doing it, but it made the trip somewhat busier than I had expected (or was used to). I’d also forgotten that driving between my parents’ homes is a bit of a trek, since the road of suburban Boston are both full of traffic and teeming with traffic lights.

I guess this will be the new normal when I go out to visit.

Balanced against that, Dad does live in a very convenient neighborhood, with a great independent bookstore, a comic book shop, and a number of very good restaurants, all within walking distance. Several of them have intriguing mixed drink menus, which I avail myself of whenever I can. And we went on a couple of shopping expeditions to comic and book stores.

Though we stayed with our respective families most of the time, Debbi and I did get together for a few days:

The first weekend I went down to visit Debbi and her family. They arranged for us to have an adventure at 5wits, where we did their espionage adventure. It’s definitely aimed at being kid- and family-friendly, but it was fun for us adults too. (It reminded me of Escape from the Mysterious Room, which a friend of mine has done.) We also watched one of the kids play a soccer game and otherwise hung around and enjoyed the nice not-quite-fall weather. Oh! And I got to meet Lucie, their 4-month-old kitten, who has their golden retrievers completely under her thumb, and is friendly and adorable to us monkeys, too.

In the middle of the week we reversed things and Debbi came up to stay at Dad’s for a couple of nights. We went to a couple of our favorite restaurants, and went out to visit Mom, where we went shopping at Frugal Fannie’s. Debbi and Mom found some stuff, while I mostly played games on my iPhone while they were shopping. I remarked that I’m much more patient with shopping expeditions that don’t interest me than I was when I was, say, 12. Unfortunately when we got back, we found that Mom had lost her apartment keys. We suspected that she dropped them when she was trying on clothes. Fortunately, Mom wanted to go back the next weekend, and we enquired at their service desk, and sure enough they had found them! So, all ended well.

Debbi’s stay at Dad’s culminated in us driving down to Cape Cod for a day. I’ve probably mentioned before that my parents have rented a cottage in Orleans, but it’s been close to 20 years since I joined them. Dad and I have driven down for day trips in the past, and I wanted to go down and show Debbi around.

We visited Orleans and Chatham, both of which are fun places to visit even in the offseason (which it was). We had lunch at Cooke’s and had some successful shopping expeditions before driving around. Then we drove up to Provincetown, which was less successful: I remember it has having many quirky stores with neat stuff to be found, but now it seems to be a collection of touristy stores, candy stores, and junk stores. Pretty disappointing. No doubt there’s still some good stuff there to find, but an hour’s walk down main street didn’t find it. (Well, with the exception of Puzzle Me This, which is an excellent casual game store, well worth a visit.)

We zipped back to Orleans to watch the sunset (which was better attended than the early afternoon beach), as it’s one of the two places on the east coast where I’ve seen the sun set over water (the other being over the Gulf of Mexico from Florida), and then went to dinner at Land Ho!, the one place we went on the trip which was wall-to-wall packed. Then I dropped Debbi off at her sister’s house and drove back to collapse into bed. It was a long day, but fun.

With all of that activity, the trip went by rather quickly. Suddenly it was time to head back.

We flew home last Sunday. Our flight was delayed an hour and a half, and we arrived an hour late. And on top of that, they lost my suitcase somehow (despite it being a direct flight). Fortunately it was just misplaced, and they delivered it the next day (6 minutes before the end of the window they gave us, amusingly enough). We took Monday off to reorient ourselves, and Tuesday it was back to work for both of us.

Since then we’ve been getting back into our routine. Debbi unfortunately has caught a cold, which I seem to have dodged (so far). The weather has been gorgeous – hard to believe it’s already fall.

Sunset at Skaket Beach